Monday, December 31, 2007

2007 Top 5's

I've got a few minutes left of the old year. As I looked back over 2007, I decided to make a list of some of some highlights. With little time left, I'll just do my favorite books of the year and my favorite family moments.

Top 5 Books Read in 2007:

"Nerd" Book: Word Myths, by David Wilton
A true delight for all word nerds, this book seeks after the sources of many common word myths and then in "Myth Buster" fashion either proves the myth correct or debunks what we thought we knew. Absolutely fascinating. (No, people's last names were not changed at Ellis Island, regardless of what Aunt Lucy says. People did that on their own later to appear more "American.")

Writing Book: The Writer's Journey, by Christopher Vogler
Out of print but worth finding used, this book has turned my way of looking at plot and character upside down and inside out. In a good way. I think my husband must be tired of me piping up during a movie with, "This is the Ordeal," or, "How much you wanna bet she's a shapeshifter?"

LDS Novel: Tie between In a Dry Land by Elizabeth Petty Bentley and Redemption Road, by Toni Sorensen Brown
I don't consider myself one of those hoity-toity types who can't appreciate genre fiction. On the contrary, I love genre fiction. But somehow these two more literary novels just resonated with me. IADL explores real Latter-day Saints with real problems that have no easy answers. It's a complex and powerful story. In RR, I have one complaint regarding the backstory, something I think could have made the story stronger, but it's a small detail in an otherwise powerful and beautifully-written book. Both of these are books that I'd reread sentences of just because they were so well put together with great imagery.

Young Adult Novel: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling
Okay, so that may sound cliche, but it's true. My husband and I read it aloud in a matter of days (after rereading the whole series earlier this year). I read the parts at the end that got me all teary and choked up and hardly able to speak. A terrific ending to a wonderful series.

National Women's Novel: The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver
This is a book I had been told to read many a time and finally got around to cracking open. All I can say is WOW. Kingsolver is a writer who officially intimidates the heck out of me. She's amazing, and this book in particular hit such a chord. I read it weeks ago, yet I still find myself thinking about it, pondering it, wondering about the characters. Very few books stick with me this long. When one does, you can bet it'll be on my favorites list.


Some Top Family Moments for 2007
As I wrote these down, I realized that I could go on and on, so I just stopped when I reached five. This has been a challenging year in some ways, but a wonderful one in many others. Five moments that were bright spots in the year:

1. Having my son ordained a deacon and my second daughter baptized on the same day. Big stuff, wonderful day all around. The only thing missing? Mom and Dad, who couldn't be there, as they were instead on the other side of the planet on a church assignment.

2. My sister nominating me for Utah's Best of State Fiction medal. Then WINNING the medal and going to the Best of State Gala with my husband (in a tux for the first time since our wedding . . . woot, woot) and both of my sisters. Also getting an up-do in my hair on my parents' dime, something they did for me since they couldn't be there in person to celebrate with me.

3) Sending my baby boy off to junior high. Biting my nails over whether the big, mean kids would eat him alive. Watching him thrive instead.

4) Seeing my real baby (who's 5 now . . .) perform in her first dance recital and love every second of it. Seeing her big sister dance at the same recital . . . and no longer look like a little girl trying to dance but look like a DANCER. And easily the best in her class, outshining them all.

5) Watching my other daughter play in the elementary orchestra after picking up the violin for one semester. I've never heard such screeching Christmas carols in my life. But it was MY girl playing with the other violins. It was awesome. I almost cried.


May 2008 bring you and yours a wonderful year!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Mel's Wild Kingdom

Not long ago, my sister Mel began working on a collection of essays about her childhood. When I read them, laughing so hard I cried, my kids raced in to see what was wrong. Part of my enjoyment surely came from remembering the events she describes so vividly (and accurately!), but a lot of it is simply that Mel's a great writer.

Long-time readers here may recall that as a sixth grader (totally grown up, from where I stood in second grade), Mel began scribbling stories in notebooks. That's when the writing bug bit me, because emulating your big sister is really the coolest thing ever, right?

After Mel sent me a few of her pieces, I decided that the world needed to see one of these trips down memory lane, so with her permission, below is one of several that had me rolling on the floor.

It's longer than your average blog post, but it's well worth every word. Enjoy!


Lions and Tigers and Bears—But First, a Poodle

by Mel Henderson

I spent pretty much the entire fifth grade mad at my dad. Irritated by his lack of initiative, at least. I couldn’t understand how a well-schooled, world-wise university professor, a PhD—and a grown-up, for crying out loud—couldn’t be bothered to follow up on an issue so acutely important to his family: The matter of a pet.

Dad always described me as bright, delightful, a joy, and energetic. That said, I’ve also been told I could sometimes be an intense, demanding kid. Whatever.

We had cats, but everyone had cats. As a fourth grader, I’d even somehow persuaded my parents to let me have 2 white mice, and named them Cookies and Cream. My resourceful big brother fashioned tunnel mazes for them out of empty toilet paper tubes and masking tape. I had trained the mice, or so I believed, to stay safely on top of my dresser when I let them out of their cage to play. But my delusions of being the Mouse Whisperer would tragically end because, well, we had cats.

What I truly wanted was a wild, magnificent creature, bigger than me, grander than any house cat. And I knew it could be done.

My mother raised us to do our research: We are living in the in the Information Age, there is no excuse for ignorance, young lady, and she was not raising incompetent females.

Check. I did my research. I read every book I could find on the subject in the school library. I twisted my mother’s arm enough to buy a few more from those book order fliers from school. My bedroom was wallpapered with animal posters, wild and domestic. I watched Gentle Ben, Grizzly Adams and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom every week.

I groomed and educated my animal sensibilities, and yet my parents kept bringing up little concerns, like is it illegal to own a carnivore the size of a Volkswagen when you live so close to an elementary school?

Being a born teacher and not wanting to completely burst my bubble, Dad’s strategy was to offer thought-provoking questions so that I could conclude on my own that finding and taming my own baby lion or tiger was a bad idea.

After striking out on obvious concerns like violent death in the jaws of a hunter (I had hard data supporting that it is possible to make giant cats safe if raised correctly from infancy), he’d offer questions like, “But how would a huge tiger ever get the exercise he needs?” to be met with my carefully thought-out response, “Dad, I’m riding him to school every day, then he will walk straight back home because that’s what I will have trained him to do.” Previous misadventures as the Mouse Whisperer not withstanding.

Next question.

Dad’s Socratic approach, while admirably gentle, put him alone in my angry cross hairs because it left me with a scrap of hope. I saw his questions as simply objections I was challenged to overcome, not actual considerations in making a wise decision. And I was proudly knocking every objection out of the ballpark. Score another run for Bright-Demanding-Joy.

Conversely, as a born truth-teller and anti-sugar-coater, Mom’s strategy was to strangle hope before the seed ever germinated. Her exact, unminced words were, “Of course not. That’s ridiculous.” She would often say things like, “When you’re the mom, young lady, you can have all the lions and tigers and monkeys you want in your house.”

To which I would silently respond, Hellooo . . . as if you could put predatorial carnivores under the same roof with monkeys!

Constant appeals to my father to please, please just look into it went completely unheeded. “Call the zoo today. Call ALL the zoos.” Right in the door from work and I’d hit the man with, “Dad! I found this book and the author lives in San Diego and an adult male lion lives with her and her husband. Write them a letter. I already got the envelope ready. And this book here has pictures of a bear on an actual picnic with his human family in Thailand or someplace. It’s a smaller breed of bear that is better for cohabiting with humans, but that kind would be fine!”

I could never figure out why he kept chuckling. It’s not like I was some clueless second grader who thought I was going to die if I didn’t get a pony with ribbons in its mane. But he never made even one call. I would have done it myself if I thought they’d take a kid seriously, but I needed his adult clout here. Show a little initiative.

Likely traumatized by my relentless verbal flailing, my parents’ collective “no new animals” foothold at last crumbled around my 11th birthday. They caved, allowing me to take in a 3-year old male miniature poodle, fully pedigreed AKC stock. He belonged to a friend’s grandmother who, we later learned, regularly cooked for him. He couldn’t be expected to thrive on the wretched offerings formulated in laboratories by veterinary scientists; much better to nurture a 10-pound show dog with a hot country breakfast three times a day. I think what sealed the deal for my dad was that she was willing to let us have the dog for free. Even crumbling footholds have their standards.

We were told that the poodle’s keeper/personal chef was retiring to a condo in Las Vegas and unfortunately couldn’t bring the dog with her. I suspect that once widowed, she simply found it too depressing to cook only for the dog, who never appreciated her gravy the way Earl did anyway.

Regardless, I was thrilled beyond words. My dream was beginning to come true: A poodle today, maybe a sun bear tomorrow. I was as excited and proud as a new mother and Nobel Prize winner on the same day, and I wanted to tell the world. Home video taken on my 11th birthday documents me cuddling a dirty, moppish-looking creature unsanitarily close to a birthday cake, forcing one paw into a tortured doggy-wave for the camera.

His name was Taco.

Taco came to us overfed and overdue for a grooming, but with neatly manicured nails, a properly cropped poodle tail, and the unmitigated libido of fifty randy Irish sailors. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s call it thirty randy Irish sailors.

No one escaped his affections entirely, but the dog had a particular affinity for one individual, a shy and excruciatingly proper man who visited our home faithfully once a month as a Home Teacher from the church for years. Perhaps knowing that he’d see his crush only rarely, Taco always gave this gentleman his most earnest attention.

I can still hear the strained embarrassment in my father’s voice as he called for me to extricate Taco’s trembling, iron grip from a woolen pant leg and then isolate the dog behind a closed door. This could happen multiple times in one visit, as some wandering child would invariably and unwittingly release the hound, who would run full-boar once again for the object of his affections.

I have to wonder if my dad ever looked at that poodle and wished he was a lazy female tiger, stretched out in front of the fireplace, blithely ignoring everyone in the room. So much less conspicuous.

The home teacher never stayed longer than necessary. We’d apologize for the dog, again, say our good-byes at the door, and apologize for the dog, again. Later the family relaxed in the kitchen with some brownies or lemon bars. The dog relaxed on the patio with a cigarette.

It was really only a matter of time before Dad had had enough. At last demonstrating some true animal-kingdom initiative, he made a few calls to the university’s animal sciences program and offered up the pedigreed poodle-stud to be neutered in student practice. We all knew the day had come for Taco the Wonder Stud to become Taco the Poodle Eunuch.

Once he got past his initial anatomical confusion, Taco seemed to pass through a brief depression. He did eventually pull himself together and go on to lead a very full life, enriched by his new hobby of intimidating small children. Oddly, the testosterone was gone, yet the aggression remained. He continued to serve as my loyal and adoring bodyguard, sleeping at my side and fiercely chasing off anyone he didn’t trust. He also chased off my harmless little sisters, simply because he could, perhaps as a pathetic attempt to restore some dignity, some poodle manhood denied.

I never did get a lion or a tiger or a bear. But seven years later, I voluntarily left a good-paying, soul-sucking, part time job as the records clerk for an office of remarkable neurosurgeons and one prickly office manager (who I am still convinced has no reflection in a mirror) to take a position at a veterinary hospital.

By comparison, this was heaven. Inside the first week, I knew that between the resident cranky parrot, the arthritic Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, the suicidal dachshund hell-bent on poisoning himself with chocolate, and the spoiled Persian cat with the oral hygiene of a pirate, it would be a long time before my own animal kingdom would want for excitement.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Finish Line

I made it! As of two days ago, I turned in my Manti temple manuscript. I had promised my editor he'd get it before Christmas. It was touch-and-go for a bit there, but it's done.

For those who have been following my progress, that means I reached all three of my personal writing goals for the last few months. First I had two word count goals that helped me get it drafted. Then I had a goal to get the first round of revisions done and the manuscript out to some of my personal readers. And finally, it was going over all of their suggestions and inputting them into the manuscript before turning it over to my editor before Christmas. (Wait. I think that makes more than three . . .)

I am hereby taking the next several days off to enjoy family and Christmas. I doubt I'll be near a computer much. I'll probably be reading, playing games, and taking a nap.

Sounds like heaven.

Merry Christmas to all!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Conference Time!

Yes, Christmas is just around the corner, but there's something else in the air as well.

Registration for the 5th Annual LDStorymakers Conference, March 21 & 22, is now available here. The conference is always such a shot in the arm for me. It's one of my favorite times of year. (Christmas in the spring!) We've simplified the registration process so you can pay online.

This year is shaping up to be our best conference ever. Among the highlights:
  • One of our keynote speakers is Timothy Travaglini, Senior Editor at G.P. Putnam's Sons (a division of Penguin Group, USA). For those of you who know Janette Rallison, he is her editor (known by her blog readers as the "bow-tied" one).
  • The return of Boot Camp, the hugely popular hands-on critique workshop prior to the regular conference each day.
  • A Publishers' panel, with representatives from all the major LDS publishing houses.
  • Pitch sessions with both Covenant and Deseret Book
  • Manuscript reviews with Tim Tavaglini
  • Choice of some 20 break-out workshops taught by established authors (including yours truly) on a wide range of topics and covering all skill levels.
  • A writing contest
  • Entertainment by comedian David Nibley (best known from his role in The Best Two Years and one of the funniest guys around)
  • Several keynote speakers you won't want to miss
  • and more

Part of that "more" is what immediately follows the conference: The first-ever Whitney Awards Gala.

Speaking of which, if you haven't nominated what you feel are the best books by LDS authors from 2007, do it soon! You have about a week and a half before the deadline (December 31). Don't assume that a particular book is shoo-in. (I've made sure to nominate some favorites; I'm not leaving it up to chance.) Nominate from WA website link above.

Another note: The facilities for the conference demand that we cap the number of attendees, so if you plan to come, sign up soon to reserve your spot. Likewise, the pitch sessions by Deseret Book and Covenant and the manuscript reviews by Mr. Travaglini are filling up fast, even though registration has been open for only a couple of days. If you want to snag one of those, hop to it!

Heather and I (and our terrific committee!) have been doing behind-the-scenes work for next spring, and it's exciting to see the pieces gradually coming together.

See you in March!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Wisdom at 5 Years

Today's post is brought to you by the sweet little mind of my 5-year-old. She is a joy in so many ways, not the least of which is her determination to give the best hugs anywhere and "permanent" kisses that can't wash off.

I almost feel guilty for enjoying this stage with her so much, because when her three older siblings were this age, I was so busy taking care of everyone else that I don't think I had the luxury of reveling in the sweetness like I can with her as the youngest.

Some of her most recent nuggets:

1) Maybe they should add this one to Merriam-Webster:
"Some boys get their ears pierced because they’re dudes. Dudes wear earrings."

2) In her efforts at keeping the family's manners in check, she insists on hearing, "You're welcome," any time she says, "thank you."

I pour a glass of milk, and she says, "Thank you . . . " If Mom doesn't respond fast enough, it's, "I said thank you!"

3) A word escaped her, so she described the object in hopes that Mom could help her remember it:

"What do you call that thing that’s like ice but it isn’t? And you eat it and you hold it? And it’s got a Popsicle stick and . . . oh, wait. I remember!"

4) And here's my personal favorite. The other night she excused herself from dinner to visit the little girl's room. While there, she belted out her current favorite Christmas song for all the world to hear.

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer (Reindeer)

Had a very shiny nose. (Like Monopoly!)

I about lost my dinner through my nose.

At some point today, I hope, I'll be hitting some more of the revisions for Manti. Right now, however, I need to get prettied up. My sisters are taking me out to lunch because I'm just that cool and they love me. Well, that, and I was born 34 years ago as of this morning. :-D

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Truth about Signings

In my pre-publication days, if I ever imagined having a book signing, it included images like people actually wanting to buy my book and have me sign it. Maybe (if I was getting really deep into the fantasy) a line of people.

Of course, reality crashes down after publication, and you realize that unless your book is about teenage wizards or vampires, you won't have a long line. Or any line. And you'll be lucky to sell more than one that your mom came to buy to support you.

You do book signings anyway to show your publisher you're committed to promoting yourself. You chat with the employees and get to know them. You try to meet customers, and when they pay you the slightest attention, you try to encapsulate your book into about five seconds, because that's as long as they're going to give you before moving on.

And that's if you're lucky enough to get someone to make eye contact, because as people walk in the door, they instinctively look away from the lonely author as if she has a contagious disease. Whatever path they were taking through the store, they now make sure to veer away from your table.

The experience is less than glamorous or ego-stroking.

I've done so many book signings that I've lost track of the number. It's got to be close to a hundred over the five and a half years I've been doing this. In that time, I've gotten a thick skin. If I don't sell any books, that's okay.

I've also managed to break out of my shy bubble so I can talk to perfect strangers and give them a very brief spiel. Then I walk away so they don't feel any used-car salesman pressure. It's a delight if they decide to come find me at the table and buy a book.

As for the chair at the table, forget it. Unless I'm actually signing a book (and sometimes not even then), I don't bother sitting. I'm up and around and talking to people.

While signings are still not in my top ten list of fun things to do (in fact, they're exhausting; it's tough to keep yourself "on" and smiling and cheerful and energetic for long spells), I've started experiencing a few new things in my most recent ones.

When I tell people about my books, I always mention the three old Utah temples they're about. At least once at every signing, and often more frequently, I invariably get asked, "What about Manti?"

Out of the four old temples, that one is glaringly absent, of course. It's great to be able to say, "That's next."

Then I get a response like, "Oh, good. Because that's my temple."

I'm amazed at how many people have a personal connection to one of these sacred buildings, how they are drawn to a specific one and cherish it. Many times people have bought one book or the other specifically because they grew up in Logan or their daughter went to school in southern Utah and loves the St. George temple or they were married in the Salt Lake temple.

I embarked on this entire series because of my personal love of the Logan temple. It's my temple. I was married there. So on one hand, I shouldn't be that surprised; I just didn't anticipate the intense reaction.

The second unexpected thing to happen this fall is something that turned out to be ego-stroking after all. (Who knew that was possible with a book signing?) Sometimes when I've talked to a customer about my books, they say the unthinkable:

"Oh, I have all your books. I love them."

Excuse me, wha-ha?

I'm so used to introducing myself and my work to people that it's completely bizarre to have reached the point where anyone has actually heard of me. Some have read my books multiple times.

More than once I've had to stop myself from saying, "Really? Are you serious?" and instead grin and say, "Thank you so much," with my mind spinning.

Such moments are still few and far between, but they happen just often enough now to keep me plugging along, seeing that hey, I'm making real progress, inch by inch.

And if you've been keeping track of my manuscript progress, I'm about a week away from submitting the Manti book!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Blame Josi

It wasn't that long ago that I had my 100th post and with it as many random things about me.

Now Josi has tagged me, and I'm to come up with ten more.

Let's see if I can think of something interesting that most readers don't know:

1) I've never skied in Utah, although I've lived here most of my life. I went skiing once in Finland with our youth group, but that's it. When it comes to winter sports, I'm a skating girl.

2) I always, always, always wear waterproof mascara and have never worn anything else. Ya never know when you're going to get something stuck in your eye, cry, or walk in the rain. Or through sprinklers. Or whatever.

3) The one Nintendo game I'm good at (or used to be) was Diddy Kong Racing. I used to play it with my son when he was younger as Mommy/son bonding time. I got pretty good. I pretty much suck at any other video games and have no desire to play them now anyway.

4) I learned to play chess by sitting on my dad's lap as he played with my brother, using this totally cool chess board my uncle made out of match sticks. The pieces were made from Plaster of Paris, I think, and had tiny details, including facial expressions. The king and queen were my favorites. Oh, and the rook. And the pawns. They were all cool.

5) I learned to ride a bike on a pink thing with a white banana seat and a flower basket on the front.

6) I have cute pinkie toes.

7) All of my children have the Lyon family upper lip. It's the most dominant gene I've ever seen. My mother-in-law has the lip, all six of her children have it, and every single grandchild has it (including the newest arrival, week-old Becca, who makes #15, I think). If there were no family members in the line-up, I could pick out my kids based entirely on pictures of their lips. Of their big toes, too. They also got that from Dad's side.

8) I grew up without white sugar, white flour, or a microwave. But plenty of chocolate.

9) As a kid I organized my bookshelves into a library, complete with call numbers and a check-out system.

10) I used to name cars. The one I drove in high school was Louise. In college I drove Betty. Dad's little red truck was Arthur, and Mom's car was Eleanor. One of these days I should get around to naming our 9-year-old mini van. If I ever name my hubby's truck, it'll have to be something like Phoenix, because that poor thing has died and come back to life after two bad accidents now. (What, is there a target on the tailgate that says, "Please rear-end me?")

Now for the tagging:

Jenna
Dapoppins
Lu Ann
Marcia
Tristi

Monday, December 10, 2007

Calibrating the Rude-O-Meter

I've gotten used to people thinking I'm weird. Characters talk in my head, I find bizarre and otherwise useless facts interesting (and wonder how they could work into a story), and so forth.

But I had no idea I was abnormal in other ways. I continue to discover just how many areas this covers when my critique group calls me on stuff my characters do or think.

Things that apparently are NOT normal.

The biggest eye-opener was with the first book I brought to the group. Everyone kept saying how completely unlikeable the heroine was. She was rude and snotty and all kinds of things.

I was horrified as they pointed to bits of dialogue to prove their point—parts that I never in a million years intended to be rude or snotty. Parts I never realized could be interpreted that way.

Apparently my rude and snotty meters needed adjusting. I know I'm not the most socially-talented person on the planet, but I suddenly realized that yikes—I had probably said lots of things in the past that had been interpreted as rude, because Brooke had to talk like me on some level, since I created her.

Learning to tweak and change how Brooke talked and behaved was a major social education for me. It was a challenge to reflect how I saw her and make readers like her.

Continuing to create likeable characters has been an on-going process for me, one that I never expected to be so hard. I also never expected the lessons to reach into my daily life. But they have. It's not uncommon for me to pause and think through something before I say it and try to run it through the rude-o-meter. (The fact that I often misread the meter is another issue.)

I've had other moments along the same lines that aren't so dramatic and life-changing, such as a critique meeting in Provo a couple of years ago. I was told in so uncertain terms by at least two group members that something my heroine did was juvenile and completely unrealistic—that any woman who would do such a thing was immature and childish. "I would hope she would have grown up since high school," was one comment.*

Oh. I guess I'm completely immature and childish, because that detail was based on me.

(I didn't tell them that, though . . . because really, people, I'm not THAT socially backward.)

*This was for a contemporary book I have shelved in favor of my historical work. (In case you were wondering which heroine in my temple books ever went to high school.)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Horses Are Like Snow

There's something magical about watching snowflakes flutter to the ground, especially on a moonlit night where the stars twinkle magically behind the white flecks carpeting the ground and transforming the world. I love curling up with a mug of hot cocoa and watching the mesmerizing view as peace descends and all worries melt away.

But I hate dealing with snow. You know what I mean: the driving on slick roads, the shoveling, the wet boots, the cold hands, the lugging coats around and all that other miserable stuff.

If I could have a winter where I could just see it without dealing with it, I'd enjoy the season far more than I actually do.

With my current WIP, I've got a similar phenomenon when it comes to animals of the equine persuasion. Horses are beautiful creatures. I love watching them (or watching people ride them) as their muscles ripple and their manes and tails fly in the wind.

I do not enjoy dealing with horses, whether that's riding them or working with them in the writing world. Currently, my frustration with horses in the literary arena is of an intensity I cannot express greatly enough.

For a historical novelist, horses are a given. If you have characters go anywhere, guess what animal is pulling the conveyance? Unless you're lucky enough to be writing about a railroad, yup, it's almost always a horse. At the Journey's End had two wagon trains traveling for a good chunk of the book. I thought that was a challenge and that after writing those scenes, surely I had the horse stuff in the bag.

Besides, I have a friend who knows horses better than almost anyone, so I always run any relevant scenes by her. (She's saved me from looking really stupid many a time: "No, Annette, that would be a halter . . . and that body part is called a flank.")

So with Lynda behind me, I could manage simple horse stuff. I never went into great detail about what went on, but I wrote up enough to get the job done. Plus, after writing about those two wagon trains, surely I could handle whatever other horse scenes I'd ever need to do.

Ha!

This WIP had the audacity to add a horse as a main part of the plot. (I say this because it wasn't my idea. The horse jumped into the story and stuck. I about died when I realized that I needed to hit the Internet on a major new research kick.)

To say that this mare has given me fits would be an understatement. Lynda has the horse pages now and recently called to let me know that there were several "big" things that needed changing. (When I get her notes back, I'll be hoping those "things" aren't issues that will necessitate revamping the entire plot!)

So I'm hereby pleading with my readers: If I ever flirt with the idea of including a horse as a main character again, stop me. Do whatever it takes. Confiscate my keyboard. Anything. Just don't let me go through this again!

Horses are for looking at and admiring, not for writing about.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Other Eyes

For one big reason, I feel as if I won the Utah writer lottery (assuming there would ever be such a thing!): I belong to one of the most remarkable critique groups on the planet.

It began with Lu Ann and Stephanni, who both lived in Spanish Fork and wanted to start up a group. Lu Ann pulled out her trusty directory from the League of Utah Writers and began calling around to writers in the area. This is a very scatter-shot way of creating a group, and by all odds, it shouldn't have worked as well as it did.

I remember distinctly when she called me. It was a July evening as I bathed my two children and was monstrously pregnant with my third, due at the end of the month. I was also finishing up my third year (and second pregnancy during that time) in the Young Womens presidency of my ward. I had been writing faithfully for some time, getting rejections and publishing a few articles, but I hadn't managed to get a book contract yet.

So when Lu Ann asked if I'd like to join, the answer was, "YES!" but at the same time, "Not yet!"

I knew that 1) I'd be giving birth in a couple of weeks and 2) with a newborn added to two small toddlers AND a high-demanding church calling, I couldn't possibly add one more thing to my plate without having it crack. I had a sneaking suspicion that our presidency would be released in a few months, so I asked if I could possibly join then. She said yes.

The following January I arrived with the first chapter of one of my books. When it was my turn to read aloud, my heart beat so hard and fast I swear it nearly jumped out of my throat. (All told, it took me about eight months of regular attendance to stop being so terrified to read aloud and a couple of years to stop be nervous at all.) It was tough; I had never gotten immediate, verbal feedback, and since a critique group is all about improvement, not a lot of time was spent on what I did right (if anything, which I doubt; looking back, I realize how green I was as a writer).

But I kept going back. Some group members moved away. Others just dropped out. But as we went along, new members took their places. We became close friends. We all improved dramatically. And we all started selling our work.

Oh yeah, and after I brought an entire book to the group and did some major doctoring as a result, I landed my publisher. Coincidence? Not hardly.

I'll never, ever, turn something in without my group going over it. We still meet about weekly, but many of us now have deadlines, and we rarely get to bring an entire book, chapter by chapter from start to finish. So when we finish a manuscript, we print it out and hand over the whole thing to each other, then trade edits.

I recently went over Michele Paige Holmes's next book, and she went over mine. Heather (H. B.) Moore also went over mine, and very soon I'll be going over hers. Jeff Savage is reading mine, and when that's done, I'll likely get his. Is it time consuming to read other people's stuff? Absolutely. But getting their feedback in return is priceless. (Okay, you CAN pay for a professional edit, and if you don't have a group like mine, I highly recommend it, but if I can get one in trade, why would I pay for one, especially when some of them are professional editors?)

Today I reached page 183 of 320 on Michele's edit of my Manti book. She caught a bunch of great stuff, including a historical detail hole I need to fill, typos the computer would never catch, awkward sentences, motivation issues, and so much more.

In a couple of days, I'll be getting Lynda's review back on all the horse stuff. (Ay, ay ay . . .) She's our group's resident expert on horses, and since you can't get away from them in historical novels (and darn it, this one has a horse playing a major role), I need her knowledge to make sure I don't call a bridle a harness make the horse do something really impossible.

Then there's our newest member, James (at least we think he's a member . . . James, you will come back to us, right? :D)

It's amazing that our little group has been in existence in some form since July of 1999. Come January, I'll have been in it for 8 of its 8 1/2 years. And every single person in the group has sold their work. Several are best-sellers in their markets.

If I had one tip for aspiring writers, it would be this:

GET THEE TO A CRITIQUE GROUP.

And if I had a second one, it would be make sure it's a GOOD group.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Thinking of Christmas

With December (and the first big snowfall of the year) here, my mind is turning to Christmas. This will be the third one in a row that I'll be an ocean and a continent apart from my parents, and it's making me sentimental.

As a child, I enjoyed Christmas more than any time of year. Now as a parent, I try to pass on some of the same traditions that made the season so special for me.

What I'm thinking about in particular right now:

1) Bing Crosby and company.
Bottom line, folks: It ain't Christmas if there isn't any Bing. My dad is of the Rat Pack generation, so I grew up listening to all the greats on his reel-to-reel tape set, almost exclusively during December. Our first married Christmas, my husband bought me a Bing Crosby Christmas CD, knowing that I'd need it to feel at home that year. I still have it, and we listen to it more than any other Christmas music.

I'm a bit like my older sister in that for years it was hard to listen to contemporary artists singing the "classics." I'm sorry, but Nat King Cole OWNS "The Christmas Song." Don't even try roasting chestnuts to anyone else.

As part of the Bing phenomenon, I watch White Christmas every year. My middle daughter has caught the bug, and it's one of her favorite Christmas traditions.

2) Pulla.
A Finnish sweet bread flavored with cardamom, pulla is not strictly a Christmas food (you can buy it at any bakery all year long). When I was growing up, December was the one time of year Dad always made pulla in beautiful braided rings. (Ironically, Mom is the Finn, but Dad was wearing the apron. Go figure.) Now I always make pulla for my family during December. The kids look forward to it, begging and pleading for the day to come when we can make pulla and they can create their own braids with the dough.

3) My first Finnish Christmas.
In 1984 my family headed over to Finland for three years on a church assignment. That first Christmas, we tried to hold onto some of our U.S. traditions while incorporating some of the Finnish ones. My biggest memories from that year: the straw and wood shaving ornaments covering the tree (gotta get me some of those one of these days) and opening half our presents Christmas Eve and the other half Christmas morning.

For the uninitiated, Santa makes his Finland stop on Christmas Eve, when everyone has big family parties. He comes in person, hands out presents, and after he leaves, they're opened. This makes for a very long day for kids; it's much easier to just wake up and open them. Splitting the unwrapping into two days was our attempt at keeping both countries' traditions.

The timing for the Finnish Christmas Even may be due to the fact that Santa's official headquarters are up by the Arctic Circle on a mountain called Korvatunturi. (I'm not making this up; check it out. I've been to Santa Land and seen the reindeer.)

4) My blue toy typewriter.
One of the best presents I ever got; I was about 8 at the time. The royal blue manual typewriter had a real ribbon and it worked just like the real thing. I ran that ribbon into the ground. Preview of coming attractions, for sure.

5) Mom's Better Homes and Gardens Trees
Our trees were always stunning. Mom would buy ornaments on clearance after Christmas, planning for next year's tree, which always had a theme. Sometimes she had Dad flock the tree, such as when we used the silver and pink decorations (a stunning tree, seriously). Whether we had Asian fans or gold garland, the tree was a sight to behold.

I struggle with what to do with our tree each year. I love the beauty of the trees I grew up with, but at the same time, I also want to showcase the Popsicle ornament my son made in second grade. We compromise--it's sort of color-coordinated (two alternating schemes), but we always slap on all the fun homemade and special memory ornaments on top of that. On top is my gorgeous bronze star hubby bought for me several years ago.

6) Moments of quiet solitude throughout my life.
I can remember sitting in the living room as a kid, the only lights being the white glow from the tree. Or the years when I had little babies and would sit and rock them by the tree. There is something mesmerizing and calming about turning off the lights, plugging in the tree, and gazing into the boughs.

I'm already making a list of the must-do traditions for this year. You can bet that everything above will be on that list, plus a few more.

Mom and Dad, wish you were here.

Coming Soon: Firsts and Lasts

UPDATE: Firsts and Lasts is now live as an ebook, and it'll soon be available in paperback as wel! Get the ebook HERE . I've got s...